An Inside Look at Mike Etherington-Smith’s New Millstreet Design

A view of the hills beyond the Fairy Fort complex at Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt. A view of the hills beyond the Fairy Fort complex at Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

The great baseball player, Rogers “The Rajah” Hornsby once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Winter is a woeful season here on the west coast of Ireland. Storms tear off the dark North Atlantic, yanking down trees, stripping away roads. Any attempt to school a horse regularly is futile, and even the minor chore of walking to the stables leaves me rain-whipped, ice-cold, discouraged.

I tend to mope. I mourn. I see the dark side of things. I lose perspective. As the tragedy of another Irish winter unfolds, with its resonance of famine and plague, I forget that I am, in fact, just waiting for spring.

Practically the only thing that keeps me from leaping off one of the sea-bashed cliffs in front of my house is plotting my summer competition schedule. I slink round the internet, ogling the sites of summer horse trials… and the whole world brightens.

What goes into building these pleasure grounds? Who are the heroes whose dedication to natural obstacles and smooth turf makes my life worth living? I decided to find out.

Here in County Cork, we have a new cross-country course designed by the great Michael Etherington-Smith, designer for the Sydney and Hong Kong Olympics, the 2010 World Equestrian Games, the Rolex Kentucky CCI4* for the past 20 years, and many others.

After salivating over sunny photos on the website of the Millstreet Equestrian Centre, where the course has been built, I rang up Mike Etherington-Smith in a grateful mood.

Drishane Castle. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

Drishane Castle. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

“The building of a new course on this scale just doesn’t happen very often,” he explained to me. “It’s a huge investment in every sense, and it isn’t an obvious way to spend that kind of money. It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of economic sense. It’s more of a dream.”

Thomas Duggan is the dreamer. His family owns Millstreet Equestrian Centre, a horse show and events venue in the town of Millstreet. The centrepiece of Millstreet Equestrian Centre is a large indoor arena, but there are also permanent stables, restaurants, a trade village, all-weather arenas, and an international-standard grass arena. Across the street from the Equestrian Centre is a further 400 acres; this is where the new cross-country course has been built.

Etherington-Smith went on, “The site at Millstreet has great terrain for the competitors and great viewing for the spectator. The venue is fantastic, and the investment made is terrific. The Duggans have transformed it. I wish the sport had more of these.”

The new course flows over 300 acres around the ancient Drishane Castle, a 72-foot high fortified stone tower house built in the 15th-Century by Dermot McCarthy, the Lord of Munster.

The castle was taken over in 1728 by the Wallis family, who built a large estate house in the shade of the Castle. The Drishane castle, house, and estate later became a convent, and there are historic features everywhere: huge stone walls round the land, grand crenulated gates at the entrance to the formal drive, a 19th-century mill wheel and lime kiln, a prehistoric fairy fort amongst statuesque oaks, a crumbling graveyard. On the far side of the graveyard, an additional 55 acres have been set aside for a planned expansion.

A Swiss pony competitor through the Mill Water Complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

A Swiss pony competitor through the Mill Water Complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

Etherington-Smith explained that as a designer, “When you lay out a course, you always try to make it rider, horse, and spectator friendly. It was a lovely bit of terrain, with some special features. When you lay out a course you begin with the start and finish and then it sort of follows on from there.”

“The start and finish were a no-brainer in this case because you wanted these near the main venue. Then you decide where you’re going to put the water. The Duggans wanted to restore the 19th century lime-kiln, and we said why don’t we put a water there. Then you want to get the course to go up by Drishane Castle, which is spectacular. And so on.”

It took about a year to build the three-star course, with planning beginning in August 2013, when Etherington-Smith drew up the master plan for a full CCI3*, and the ground-breaking beginning in October with the cleaning and clearing of the land.

There were setbacks. Over the winter, historic storms felled dozens of trees, and it took the team at Millstreet more than a month to clear the devastation. Then in
April heavy rains forced them to push the grass sowing date back three weeks, so that the grass hardly had time to grow up before the European Pony Championships, which ran over the course last August.

An enormous amount of effort and care went into growing that grass. Rough stubble fields had to be painstakingly transformed. First the land was sculpted to smooth out curves and slopes, then a full six inches of heavy topsoil was scraped off and replaced with stone-free, perfect, well-draining earth.

As Etherington-Smith explained, “Footing is the most difficult to get right. It was all a bit nerve-wracking with the wet winter, but at Millstreet they rightly used
turf people and followed their advice to letter. A massive investment went into getting the footing right and now you have what’s there: terrific footing. Why don’t you go see for yourself?”

A view of Mount Cara beyond Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

A view of Mount Cara beyond Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

I drove up to Millstreet to meet Thomas Duggan, who could not have been more charming. I asked him how the economics of building a world-class cross country course work.

“They don’t,” he said. “If you want to make money with your money you don’t do this with it. You do this for the love of it. It’s a passion.”

“But it was always in our head here at Millstreet that this land would be suitable for a cross-country course. A CCI3* course is up to 6,270 metres;  a four-star is up to 6,840 metres or 7 kilometres. You need a lot of scope to do that – and thankfully we have it. We felt it would complete our facility; we’re unique in the British Isles in how many all-weather arenas we have available for the dressage and showjumping.”

Duggan cheerfully drove me round the new course in his big warm truck. The sun shone; the Irish grass glistened impossibly green as it does in all the songs and stories.

“Believe it or not,” Duggan told me, “these fields were mostly corn stubble. We had the land rented to different farmers, and the nuns before us had it rented too, so there was decades’ worth of neglect on it.”

More beautiful hills surrounding Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

More beautiful hills surrounding Millstreet. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

“The finish on the top is vital,” Duggan went on, “so we went for a horrendously expensive three-way mixture of grass seed – I think the seed alone was over €50,000. We followed the recommendation of the Sports Turf Research Institute and sowed it at a very dense rate.”

“An agronomist called Jim Kelly nursed the baby grass from the time we set the seed. He took soil samples and rebalanced the soil where needed. He came every few days to check it, to tell us when to feed or water it.  We were worried it wouldn’t be ready in time for the Pony Championships, but God leant a helping hand.”

Duggan’s team also built three serious water complexes: a vast lake with an island, a shamrock-shaped pond with two large swan-shaped jumps carved from enormous trees felled in the storms, and a water splash incorporating the working 19th-century mill wheel.

Duggan explained, “We wanted it to be beautiful, and we wanted it to have an Irish theme. I went to all the big events in the UK and took photos of the nicest fences, and then I followed up to find out the right kind of paint. You see, a jump is like a beautiful woman: if you put the wrong paint on her she’s ruined! I also bought gypsy caravans off the Internet from up the country, and had copies of the wheels made in Poland to dress the fences. We had large and small versions made of all the fences. And we planted about 1,000 trees.”

Tons of top soil and grass seed, a lake, a pond, a thousand trees. Etherington-Smith said, “The luxury of getting involved in creating venues from scratch on this scale just doesn’t happen very often.”

No wonder.

Charging through the Fairy Fort complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

Charging through the Fairy Fort complex. Photo by Marianne Van Pelt.

“If you build it, they will come,” said a voice to an Iowa farmer played by Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams – and so he built a commercially implausible baseball field out of sheer love for the game. He built it, and players like Rogers “The Rajah” Hornsby came.

Millstreet will host its first International Horse Trials the 28th – 30th August 2015.

Michael Etherington-Smith and Thomas Duggan and all the blessed course designers and builders have built it – at Millstreet, at Millbrook, and many places in between.

We are coming. Spring is coming.

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